Best Article Nominee: The trouble with women’s mountain bikes.

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Nominated for Best Written Article in the Singletrack Reader Awards 2015

Adele examines why she thinks women’s mountain bikes are in danger of finding themselves mired in a muddy puddle of mixed messages.

..while some brands have gone back to the drawing board to design unique women’s bikes, others have simply tweaked the standard model, claiming that this is all that is needed.

Despite what the male-oriented images on the websites of most brands would have us believe, I’m pretty sure the core ranges of mountain bikes were never designed specifically for men. Rather, these ‘standard bikes’ have evolved to give the best possible ride either cross-country, downhill or in whatever discipline of this sport that we choose to enjoy. There’s lots of choice, but whichever one you ride you’ll probably end up adjusting something to make it fit (whether you’re male or female).

vic alker mountain bike singletrack magazine womenMountain bikes designed specifically for women take this fit issue a step further. Using women’s physiques as a starting point, the aim is to enable us to experience the most efficient and enjoyable ride possible.

The problem is that the industry is clearly not in agreement on the best way to achieve this. So while some brands have gone back to the drawing board to design unique women’s bikes, others have simply tweaked the standard model, claiming that this is all that is needed.

Meanwhile the industry has to balance the needs of a wide range of women riders with what is still a very small demand, so women’s ranges tend to be limited in frame and spec’ choice when compared to the standard bike offering.

As a result some of us – particularly those looking for a more spendy bike to suit our level of participation and experience – are left feeling frustrated and confused about whether it’s best to buy a standard bike or a women’s model.

Here’s why.

Let’s start with some brands. In one camp we have the no-holds-barred approach to women’s bike design from mega brands Trek and Specialized, bravely flying the empowerment flag for women riders everywhere.

Trek’s WSD [Women’s Specific Design] bikes are specifically designed to complement the typical woman’s lower centre of gravity and smaller stature. It’s not just the contact points, frame geometry and sizing that have been addressed, but also the suspension, which has been tailored to work with a woman’s physique.

In fact, Juliana and Santa Cruz bikes share the same frames (and wheel sizes). The only differences between the Juliana and Santa Cruz version of a bike are smaller, female-sized contact points

Similarly, Specialized Women offers “scientifically dialled bikes and equipment” based on “anthropometric testing“. The result is a range of refined frames, custom-tuned forks and female-specific components. And no expense is spared when it comes to the ladies, it seems: the women’s S-Works Era, at £8,000, is currently the brand’s most expensive mountain bike (and way out of my budget, sadly).

So let’s now consider the curve ball thrown by Juliana Bicycles, who “take huge pride in the fact that all our bicycles are designed, tested and hand built in California with the help of our friends at Santa Cruz Bicycles”.

In fact, Juliana and Santa Cruz bikes share the same frames (and wheel sizes). The only differences between the Juliana and Santa Cruz version of a bike are smaller, female-sized contact points (bars, grips, saddle and cranks), amended nominal frame sizes, plus a name and paint change. A Roubion frame is the same as a Bronson frame, a Joplin frame is the same as a Tallboy frame, a Furtardo frame is the same as a 5010 frame, and so on.

Why do they venture down this design route? “Our female customer tends to be a hard-riding woman who wants the same bike as the men”, they tell me (and who in their right mind is going to argue with a hard-riding woman?). Finally, let’s go from California to West Yorkshire, where the women’s Orange Five Diva and Alpine 160 Diva frames are, again, the same as the men’s frames but with a women’s saddle and differently labelled, although identically sized, frame size options.

These are hugely popular, respected brands, offering very different solutions to women riders.

So who has got it right?

Unfortunately local bike shops don’t tend to sing from the same hymn sheet on this subject either.

In one corner is the store that directs us to the women’s section (catapulted into the 21st century thanks to the addition of a changing room and a full length mirror) and seduces us with their range of bottom-friendly lady saddles, womens’ rides with cupcakes, and cycling clothes that are trying really hard not to be too pink.

In the other corner is the bike shop owned by a trail-wizened bloke whose sales pitch involves a quick glance up and down before saying ‘you’re tall and you’ve got long arms: a men’s medium frame will be fine’.

(Note: To be fair to him, this is exactly what I currently ride).

And of course, stores will also then tell you that they can simply adjust the men’s bike to fit, if needs be.

Still, it would be nice to be able to at least try a female-specific bike. And, while this is not impossible, it’s still much easier said than done. Unfortunately, and despite a rapid growth in participation, women are still not buying enough mountain bikes – especially high-end full suspension models – to make it viable for stores to offer them as test bikes. In some cases the bikes are so scarce they’re not even available to test from the brands themselves.

This all feels a little bit chicken and egg: it’s hard to determine if a women’s bike fits your body shape, or rides as well as or better than the men’s option, if you can’t actually try it.

And of course, stores will also then tell you that they can simply adjust the men’s bike to fit, if needs be.

Can anyone else hear the sound of women’s bike designers banging their heads on their desks?

And then we come on to the spec issue. Sadly the components on top of the range women’s bikes often do not match those in the men’s range or, if they do, the options rapidly drop away as your budget rises. Women’s ranges simply offer less choice then the men’s.

And this is not just about XT this and that, or carbon bits and bobs: women’s longer travel bikes are almost a complete tumbleweed moment too (aside from the aforementioned Orange bikes, the Juliana Roubion and the Commencal Meta AM Girly – if you know of anymore, do let me know).

Brands will blame lack of demand – but does anyone know how many women are simply choosing to buy men’s bikes instead? I suspect not.

On a more positive note, women’s mountain bikes have well and truly moved on from the time when the main reason they stood out was because they looked so embarrassingly girly. The industry has pretty much woken up to the fact that ‘shrink it and pink it’ won’t cut it anymore.

That S-Works Era, for instance, is satin black – you don’t get much more stylish than that. And a friend recently observed that a Santa Cruz Joplin is exactly the same shade as her favourite Dior nail polish. So, that’s a good reason to buy one, right there.

However, for me, the lowered top tubes favoured by many women’s bike designers do put me off. I understand that they are a benefit to smaller women. But I can’t help but notice that a dipped top tube tends to look as if something heavy has been dropped on it from a great height. And if you’re taller don’t even think about accidentally slipping off the saddle and landing on one: I can tell you from personal experience, the extra drop means it really hurts.

Having failed to make my mind up about the women’s bike issue, I head for the pub, where a whole army of friendly mountain male bikers are only too happy to pass on their advice on what bike I should be riding. I am truly grateful for their expertise but, of course, I am also mindful that they will only have ridden standard bikes so that’s what they are likely to recommend.

So do I take too much notice of what my husband and his ride buddies tell me I should ride? I’ll own up – I probably do. I suspect I’m not the only woman who is guilty of this (you know who you are).

So, it’s time to stand on my own two feet (though frankly I’m so confused I feel more like having a lie down) and make some decisions.

Or perhaps I’ll just go for a lovely ride on the bike I’ve already got, instead.

vic alker mountain bike singletrack magazine women

 

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Comments (6)

    As the husband of a ferocious 5foot woman, this subject has become a ‘thing’ for me.

    The biggest problem I’ve found is cranks. You can’t buy anything (that’s not square taper) shorter than 165mm. Which is great if you’re 5’10”.

    (165 is only 6% less than 175, which means most people who try ‘short’ cranks don’t notice much difference, so most people don’t think crank length makes a difference)

    “The biggest problem I’ve found is cranks. You can’t buy anything (that’s not square taper) shorter than 165mm.”
    maybe not cheap/common – but they exist: http://www.cranknuts.com/all-mountain-downhill-cranks/

    Personally I think the brands have this wrong. I don’t ride a ‘mans’ bike – it’s just a bike. Pretty similarly I don’t drive a man car, live in a man house or sleep in a man bed.

    The industry as a whole needs to focus on making bikes more adaptable, tuneable and adjustable for a variety of sizes, weights and builds.

    Several fairly enthusiastic cyclists I know, who happen to be female, just want a good performing bike, that fits and they have a wide selection to choose from. This isn’t really there yet – unless they include so called men’s ‘bikes’.

    Funnily enough, Whyte are releasing their 2016 models, the hard tails are either called “compact” or standard. The compact bikes have slightly tweaked geometry and contact points. No “female” v “male” bikes. (Road bikes, different case)

    Every bike these days is coming with a ‘very dropped’ top tube
    And from a male POV this is a good thing
    I am not helping here am I

    As the ‘longer legs, shorter torso’ theory has been de-bunked, and women’s proportional variations are shown to be very similar to men’s, but a bit shorter with more weight ‘up top’, I’m not sure that women need different bikes? OK, you might want a bit more compression damping on the fork, and bit less on the shock, but that is pretty easily sorted on bikes with reasonable forks and shocks. Most people who’ve ridden a bit have their choice of saddle/grips, etc. If you buy a complete new bike you make your mind up if you’re going to change out the stock bits or not. It’s one of the nice things about bikes, if you buy a complete one, it’s really easy to unscrew some bits you don’t like, and change them out for bits you do, or have someone do it for you, which any decent shop will, whether you’re male or female.

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